Faced with the choice between taking on a captain from a full-service European airline and an equally qualified candidate from a low-cost carrier, Greg Turner, vice-president operations with Abu Dhabi premium charter and medevac operator Royal Jet, says he would choose the latter. The reason: no-frills pilots have to "stand on their own two feet - they don't walk away from problems".
Flying budget travellers across Europe on quick-turnaround schedules might seem an unusual qualification for becoming an airborne chauffeur for some of the world's wealthiest and most demanding passengers. But Turner says he does not want just pilots: "I am looking for mission commanders."
Royal Jet, set up in 2003 by Abu Dhabi Aviation and the royal flight service, has become the region's pre-eminent business aviation provider, with the world's biggest fleet of five Boeing Business Jets, two Gulfstream 300s, a Gulfstream IV SP, a Bombardier Learjet 60 and a BAE Systems Avro RJ85.
© Royal Jet
Although based in the Gulf - and with a sizeable proportion of its clientele comprising the region's ultra-high net-worth individuals - Royal Jet's reach covers the world, from Hollywood movie stars to West African heads of state to Russian billionaires. The company's pilots not only have to be flexible individuals and superb aviators - landing in remote and challenging airports - they must be faultless diplomats and ambassadors for the brand. What is more, says Amna Saif Al Mansouri, vice-president of human resources and administration, they have to be able to take rapid executive decisions on the ground. These might involve helping to find accommodation for the crew, the customer's favourite food or aviation fuel in the middle of nowhere.
"We took a deliberate view when we launched that this airline was going to have to represent itself globally," says Turner. "We did not want to be measured just on local standards. That's why we set about building a very diverse and skilled workforce."
The level of service expected from its pilots is very different from that of commercial airline flightcrew. "When they [the latter] land, they go and don't care about the aircraft," says Al Mansouri. "Our captains have to make sure the aircraft is cleaned and refuelled. They sometimes have to make sure it is protected. We also expect them to welcome the customer and walk with them to the aircraft. Sometimes our clients ask for captains by name. They feel comfortable with someone they know. We want to go the extra mile. We want to do anything we can to satisfy the customer. That's what sets us apart."
"We want to go the extra mile. We want to do anything we can to satisfy the customer"
Amna Saif Al Mansouri
Royal Jet vice-president of human resources and administration
Pilots can end up living in the lap of luxury on chartered excursions, which can last 21 days at a timeor find themselves roughing it. One Royal Jet pilot remembers he and his crew being invited to stay as guests of an African president in his palace. On an another trip to the same region, the only accommodation available was a budget hotel.
Royal Jet employs 27 captains and 18 first officers. Minimum standards are tight. Captains must have 6,000h flying time and experience of flying VIP passengers. First officers are required to have 4,000h, and VIP experience is desirable. Although the company has its full complement of pilots, it is looking to order a sixth BBJ soon and has said it expects to be operating a fleet of 20 aircraft by 2012.
Cabin crew qualifications are also high. Royal Jet employs 57 cabin crew from 20 countries. Most come from an airline premium cabin background and speak at least one language other than English. They have a passenger profile for each customer, detailing everything from what they like to eat and when, to what sort of cologne they prefer in the washroom. "The crew know what to say and what not to say, what they like and what they don't," says Al Mansouri. "Most of our cabin crew like the challenge. Many of them got bored with normal airlines. Here every flight is different."
© Royal Jet
A selection of Royal Jet pilots we met was extremely cosmopolitan and the company is small enough for everyone to know each other. Mor Kebe, a BBJ first officer, is from Senegal and flew for the West African country's national airline before joining Royal Jet eight months ago. Briton David Grieve began his career as a hotel concierge before learning to fly in the USA. He has been a BBJ senior first officer since 2005. Justin Curtis, at Royal Jet for 18 months, flew Learjets in the USA and is now a Gulfstream captain. Ahmed Kadry El Maanawy is an Egyptian air force veteran who began flying Gulfstreams for Royal Jet last year. "We feel we are a family," he says.